Niki Ludt remembers getting her driver’s license.

“You know,” she tells me over the phone, “When I went to get my driver’s license my mother said, ‘Oh, your birth certificate’s in the china cabinet drawer,’ and I went and I got my birth certificate, and she had my Social Security card that she handed me and she probably drove me over to the licensing place and wrote a check and paid for me.”

Niki Ludt is the director of the Face To Face Legal Center, a Philadelphia non-profit that offers free legal services to residents living below 150% of the federal poverty level.

She has worked with low-income clients for 23 years.

For most teenagers, getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage.

“But for a lot of our younger clients, they’re from very dysfunctional families — if they were actually even with their family and not in foster care,” she says. “So they don’t necessarily have that kind of documentation.”

It’s a problem Adam Bruckner knows well.

Every Monday afternoon since December 2002, Brucker has stood on Vine Street in Philadelphia’s Center City, armed with a clipboard and two checkbooks. At four p.m. two lines begin to form. One line receives food; volunteers serve up to 300 plates each week.

The other line needs help getting ID.

Bruckner is the founder of Philly Restart, a nonprofit he created to help Philadelphia’s poor and homeless get the legal ID they need to start new lives. While other volunteers serve food, Bruckner writes checks to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and the Division of Vital Records — state agencies that charge a fee to produce photo IDs and birth certificates.

In 2013 alone, Philly Restart helped over 5,000 Philadelphia residents get legal ID.

On a Wednesday morning Bruckner carves out some time to take my call.

He calls Philadelphia “a huge, poor city.”

“It’s crazy how many people we serve a year that are unique customers,” he says. “It’s not the same 100 people coming back every week.”

There are many reasons why low-income Americans lack legal ID. Young adults aging out of foster care programs often need help locating vital records. Adults fleeing domestic abuse are often forced to leave documents behind. Americans who were born at home or delivered by midwife can lack birth certificates.

Even if they were delivered in hospitals, many older African-Americans born in the South don’t have birth certificates. Ludt describes one such client.

“She was actually born in a hospital, but I’ve come to learn that many times African-American births were never recorded by the state, and I don’t know if that was the case with her or if the document was just lost,” says Ludt.

Unexpected disasters can also leave people needing vital documents. At one point, Ludt and the Face to Face team were asked to help secure nine birth certificates for a family whose home was destroyed by fire.

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